Saturday, March 19, 2016

Vibrant, vexing, and all too vulnerable İstiklal

On my very first visit to Turkey, 15 years ago, my traveling companions and I spent a couple of nights in a charmingly shabby hotel overlooking İstiklal Caddesi, an incredibly busy pedestrian street in the heart of Istanbul. We were young then, staying out late each night drinking cheap beer in crummy bars, and I don't recall being bothered by the noise. But I vividly remember the excitement of standing on our small balcony, raptly watching the throngs of people passing by below until the wee hours of the night. I'd never been anywhere that felt so alive.

For better or for worse, İstiklal is a melting pot, though that seems too gentle of a term for a place that sends all different kinds of people colliding into each other, often literally (look where you're going, will ya?!): camera-toting tourists, scarf-waving football fanatics, street vendors hawking everything from stuffed mussels to glow-in-the-dark devil horns, rambunctious teenagers, chanting protesters, armor-clad riot police, busking street musicians, bag-laden shoppers, over-persistent charity solicitors, bar- and gallery-hoppers, scammers, gropers, lovebirds, drunks, and many more. As dynamic as the crowds are the storefronts themselves, which change so rapidly as malls and chain stores push out beloved local institutions that even after just a few days away, you can barely recall what used to be where that shiny new kebab shop is now, a phenomenon my friends and I have come to think of as "Istanbul amnesia."

In the eight years I've now lived here in Istanbul, I've walked down İstiklal an uncountable number of times, at every hour of the day and in every season, from the scorching heat of summer when pedestrians cling to the shadows cast by the buildings lining either side of the avenue to cold winter nights when snowball fights break out among people slip-sliding their way down the icy street. Familiarity breeds a bit of contempt, though, and for the local resident, İstiklal is more often annoying than it is enthralling. The noise, the tacky shops, the crumbling pavement, the strong possibility of getting teargassed, the crowds, oh, the crowds. But a place so woven into the fabric of our daily lives can't fail to hold cherished memories as well: the thrill of being caught up amidst an exuberant, defiant post-Gezi crowd of Gay Pride parade revelers; of venturing into dilapidated hans for dinner and dancing at raucous Greek and Laz meyhanes; of tipsily weaving through the crowd hand-in-hand with someone you're simply crazy about.

This morning, I was at the gym just off Taksim Square, one of İstiklal's endpoints, when a news ticker on the TV caught my eye: "İstanbul İstiklal Caddesinde patlama meydana geldi." An explosion has occurred on Istanbul's İskiklal Avenue.

After multiple bomb attacks in Ankara, and amid a heightened threat of terrorism not only in Turkey but in many places around the world, I thought I had braced myself for this news, but my heart was still in my throat as I waited for the ticker to cycle through seemingly endless lines of entertainment, sports, and business news before eventually updating. Two dead, six wounded.

I exited the gym to find the building surrounded by riot police, lined up in front of yellow caution tape blocking off the entry to Taksim, and milling about amidst the small crowd of people who all looked as shocked, confused, and uncertain about what to do next as I felt. I walked home under the loud thrumming of helicopters overhead, anxious to be in front of my computer where I could watch the "I'm safe" messages roll in online from friends, breathing a sigh of relief with each one.

The night before the bombing, I'd been out on İstiklal yet again, albeit a bit warily. Renewed security warnings had noticeably reduced the usual crush of people, leaving typically packed bars and restaurants with many empty tables. There was some jovial bravado amongst those who'd ventured out, and jokes at the expense of someone whose fearful wife had forbidden him to leave home. It all seemed rather cavalier the next morning, with at least four (plus the suicide bomber) dead just around the corner from where we'd been cracking open beers. After the bombing, İstiklal was closed off for many hours; by the time it reopened, I was getting ready to head across the Bosphorus on a nearly empty ferry, encountering the same eerily vacant streets people had been photographing all over the city. Always-frenetic Istanbul was quieter even than on the biggest annual holidays, with an inescapable somberness.

I saw online that İstiklal shopkeepers had laid red carnations and small candles at the site of the attack, carrying signs that read "We are here, we are not afraid." These commemorative tokens may last a day or two, the consciousness of passing a place of tragedy a bit longer. But soon, I am sure, Istanbul amnesia will set in once more, and the street that we love, hate, and love to hate will again be filled with throngs of people, not out of defiance but because life somehow just always goes on.


Julia said...

Great post when lots of us are struggling to find the words. Shared!

Darinka Mihrimah Bajsova said...

thank you so much for this post

Mark and Jolee said...

Thanks for putting into words what many of us are feeling, Jen. You have poignantly captured the conflicting emotions that those of us who have chosen to make Istanbul our home are experiencing today.

Unknown said...

Exactly! A love-hate relationship for sure. Life does go on, but it's still such a tragedy to see what's happening all over Turkey! :(

The Turkish Life said...

Many thanks, all. Glad to hear it resonated. x

mickey said...

i wish there was less hate at Turkey towards jews and Israelis